6 Tennessee Rivers Offering Cool Refreshment

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Tennessee rivers

Summer has arrived, and that means hitting the water is on just about everyone’s to-do list, whether you prefer swimming, boating or fishing. If your vacation budget is small, we have good news. In Tennessee, you don’t have to spend a fortune on a beach vacation to splash in the summer sun. Thanks to its abundance of rivers, the Volunteer State overflows with opportunities to create memories with your family on the water.

Ocoee, Conasauga & Hiwassee Rivers in East Tennessee

Polk County is a favorite East Tennessee destination among water enthusiasts for its exhilarating Ocoee River, which thrills adventurous types with Class III and IV rapids. Consistently named among America’s top whitewater rivers, the Ocoee was the site of canoe and kayak slalom competitions during the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Divided into three parts, the Upper Ocoee includes the challenging Olympic Race Channel, the Middle Ocoee is used for commercial rafting, and the Lower Ocoee is ideal for tubing and floating. The Ocoee is ideal for adults and families with teenagers, since you have to be 12 or older to enjoy whitewater rafting. Guided raft trips by local outfitters are available April through October.

Ocoee river

Photo courtesy of Tom Tohill, Digital Ocoee Photography

Though the Ocoee may be Polk County’s most popular river, the area has even more to offer.

“Everyone knows about the Ocoee because it’s famous for whitewater rafting,” says Adrian Lambert, director of the Polk County Chamber of Commerce. “Fewer people know about the Conasauga River, which is a hidden gem. The Conasauga is a very diverse water body with more than 45 species of fish, 24 of which are rare, including the endangered hellbender salamander. It’s very popular among snorkelers and great for fishing.”

The Conasauga (Cherokee for “sparkling waters”) has been praised as one of the only underwater wildlife viewing areas in Tennessee, thanks to its pristine waters. It supports 12 endangered aquatic species.

“The Hiwassee River is another one of Polk County’s rivers, and it’s perfect for families with smaller children,” Lambert says. “It’s good for tubing, kayaking, floating and trout fishing, and it runs through the historic district of Reliance, which is beautiful.”

Tennessee rivers

The Hiwassee winds through the lush Cherokee National Forest and gets its name from a Cherokee word meaning “a meadow place at the foot of the hills.”

READ MORE: Float the Hiwassee River

“We have so much water diversity in Polk County, from a quiet calm river to a raging river with rapids,” Lambert says. “You can embark on high adventures or enjoy a relaxing float. It’s very affordable in comparison to a trip to the beach. You can fit in twice the number of activities on the same budget.”

Waterfalls are another draw in Polk County, with many accessible by hiking. The tri-county area of Polk, McMinn and Monroe counties contains more than 80 waterfalls. For a guide to the most accessible waterfalls, visit tennesseeoverhill.com.

While in Polk County, don’t miss the opportunity to have lunch at the Ocoee Dam Deli & Diner, loved by the locals for its home-cooked food (and to-die-for desserts) in a funky atmosphere.

Caney Fork River

Caney Fork & Harpeth Rivers in Middle Tennessee

In Middle Tennessee, the Caney Fork River draws folks for kayaking, canoeing and fishing. Local outfitters Janis and Joel Martin, owners of Big Rock Market and Caney Fork Outdoors, are on hand to help outdoor enthusiasts make the most of their river outing with kayak and canoe sales and rentals, clothes designed to wear on the water, fishing supplies, and groceries. The site also offers cabin rentals and a campground. Big Rock Market celebrates 40 years in 2016.

Member Savings

Tennessee Farm Bureau members can receive a discount at Big Rock Market and Caney Fork Outdoors by downloading the Farm Bureau Member Savings app for iPhone or Android.

“We’re a family-owned and -operated business with a passion for sharing our love of the outdoors and kayaking on our beloved Caney Fork River,” Janis Martin says. “Our whole family kayaks, from the youngest to the oldest, for a total of 14 kayakers. It’s great family fun with everyone on the water together. It’s bonding time that fills a void in families today because being together on the river is a day never forgotten.”

Joel is an avid trout fisherman who knows the river well, so many fishermen trust him to point them in the right direction.

“The Caney Fork is one of the best trout streams in the Southeast,” Joel says. “We have rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout. Along with showing visitors the right lure or fly to use, we carry a complete line of tackle from over 300 patterns of flies and everything for trout fishing.”

Caney Fork Outdoors runs a shuttle service to and from the river for canoe and kayak rentals, and they even organize river trips for you.

“The Happy Hollow is one of our most popular trips,” Janis says. “It’s a 6-mile trip that can be done in three or four hours. Pack a picnic lunch, or we can pack a gourmet lunch for you, and you can swim, fish, bird-watch or just paddle.”

The Class II Harpeth River in Middle Tennessee also attracts paddlers, hikers and fishermen. It hosts large and small mouth bass, bream, crappie, bluegill, and channel catfish. The Harpeth is loved by many for its historic Narrows of the Harpeth, a 100-yard tunnel that was hand cut through solid rock in 1818. It’s a favorite swimming hole too, though with no lifeguards, swim at your own risk.
Wolf River

Wolf River in West Tennessee

In West Tennessee, the Wolf River near Memphis has become increasingly popular for canoeing and kayaking in recent years, especially for its mysterious Ghost River section. The Ghost River section is a 9-mile trip from LaGrange to the Bateman Road access near Moscow, Tenn. It takes about six hours to paddle, including a lunch break.

“The Ghost River section goes through a deep swamp. Many paddlers in the early days had to end up staying overnight in there because they couldn’t find their way out,” says Dale Sanders, director of outreach for the Wolf River Conservancy. “There is so much growth with huge Cypress trees that, basically, the floor of the forest is water. You have to navigate your way through it because at one point, the river just disappears. It’s much better marked today, so you don’t need a guide, but it’s advisable to have some paddling experience.”

The Lost Swamp Trail section of the Wolf River is another favorite among paddlers, known for its scenic forested swamps. The 6-mile trip from Bateman Bridge to Moscow takes three or four hours to paddle.

“People don’t realize how beautiful this area is, and it’s in their own backyard,” says Sanders, who chronicles his own paddling adventures on his website, greybeardadventurer.com. “Visitors often tell us they can’t believe there’s something this beautiful so close to Memphis. It’s truly a well-kept secret.”

Hikers and bikers can also take in the scenery of the Wolf River via the Wolf River Greenway, a paved pathway that runs along the banks of the river. More information is available online at wolfriver.org.

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